The parent/child relationship is one of the most unique and emotion-filled relationships people can experience. Children alternate between wanting to please their parents and wanting to get as far away from them as they can. Parents can look at their child with wonder at the gift that God has given them and can also be so frustrated with that same child that they would be willing to give them away to anyone who would take them! The parent/child relationship is filled with ups and downs, and it is deep and complex. This morning we are going to look at some general principles of what we should be striving for in a good parent/child relationship.
Over the last several weeks we have examined Paul’s command for Christians to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ (Ephesians 5:21). The last three weeks have focused on applying this principle in marriage. Now we turn our attention to the parent/child relationship. Paul gives instructions to both children and parents about what it means to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
He speaks first to children:
Children, obey your parents because you belong to the Lord, for this is the right thing to do. “Honor your father and mother.” This is the first commandment with a promise: If you honor your father and mother, “things will go well for you, and you will have a long life on the earth.” (Ephesians 6:1-3, NLT)
Paul says children should obey their parents because “it is the right thing to do.” Even pagan cultures and systems of thought recognize that children need to obey their parents. Parents play a protective role, guiding and teaching children until they can take care of themselves.
Paul also goes back to the Ten Commandments and points out that God commanded children to “honor your father and mother.” He reminds us that God said that if you follow this command, “things will go well for you and you will have a long life on the earth.” This is a general promise, not a universal one. When children die young or face hardship it isn’t necessarily because they didn’t honor their parents. What this promise is saying is that, generally speaking, children who follow the instruction of their parents will face fewer hardships and less danger in the long run. The child who rebels against their parents by using drugs, staying out late, being promiscuous, and driving recklessly is in much greater danger than the child who obeys.
There are lots of practical reasons to obey your parents: they have lived longer, have more experience, have made more mistakes, and have hopefully learned from those mistakes. They have greater wisdom than their child. But Paul says that children should not just obey their parents because it is beneficial to them. Notice what he says, “obey your parents because you belong to the Lord.” The greatest motivation for children to obey is because it pleases God when they do.
So now that we understand the rationale behind the command, let’s look at what that looks like. The Ten Commandments say to honor your father and mother. Obedience is included within the idea of honor, but honoring your father and mother is more than just obedience.
You may have heard the story about a small child who got into the car and refused to sit in her seat. Her parents tried to convince her that she needed to sit, but she declared that she wanted to stand. Eventually the parents managed to get the little girl to sit down in her seat. One parent said to the little girl that they were glad she chose to sit down like they told her to. The little girl responded, “I may be sitting on the outside, but I’m standing on the inside!”
This is an example of obedience without honor. Paul says that children should not be grudgingly obedient, but that they should respect their parents enough to obey them, without complaining or arguing. Children should submit to their parents’ authority, recognizing that God has placed them in that position. They should be grateful for their parents’ instruction rather than resenting it.
To this point, those of us who are parents have surely been nodding along, and some of you may have even wanted to shout out “Amen!” to Paul’s instructions. But let me pose a question. At what age does a child no longer need to honor their father and mother? At what point in life does this command no longer apply to us? Even when we are parents (or grandparents), shouldn’t we continue to honor our fathers and mothers?
The parent/child relationship necessarily changes over time, but the need to honor our fathers and mothers remains the same. It doesn’t matter whether you are 5, 15, 25, or 55, Paul’s instructions on submitting to our parents applies to us. As adults, we may no longer be expected to obey everything our parents tell us to do, but we must continue to show honor and respect toward them, and to carefully listen to the wisdom they share. We must recognize that God has placed them in a position of authority, and that we honor Him when we honor them.
It’s one thing to say we should honor our parents when they are good, caring, and selfless, but what about when parents are selfish, abusive, or have abandoned us? What do we do when our parents aren’t Christians and oppose our faith?
I’ll be honest; I don’t have clear answers for these situations. I am fortunate to have very good parents. I realize that isn’t the case for all of you. I still think we are supposed to show honor to our parents, even if they are bad parents, but I suspect it will have to take a different form. I don’t think that you honor an abusive parent by allowing them to continue abusing you. It’s important for a child whose parent is abusing them to get help and to get safe. Some of you may not even have a relationship with your parents because of the way they treat you. I don’t think Paul is saying that we must be doormats.
I think Paul is saying that we should try to find ways to honor the parents God has given us. For some, that may mean starting by praying for them. Pray that God would help them to understand His love in the way that you have. Pray that God’s love would change them. Pray that somehow He would heal your relationship. For others, it may mean that you start by being civil. Rather than attacking your parents, choose to be polite. Refuse to sink to the level of trying to hurt them.
If you are in a situation like this, it saddens me. It isn’t the way this relationship should be. I would encourage you to seek the Lord’s will on how you can show some kind of honor to your parents—even if it falls far short of what you would like that relationship to be. As much as possible, we should seek to honor our fathers and mothers. Most of the time we can, but sometimes there are limits to what we can safely do. The key is to do what we can to honor them. Ultimately we do not honor our parents because they deserve it, but because when we do so, we are also honoring the Lord.
Paul doesn’t stop with just instructing children about how to submit to their parents. He also turns the tables and tells parents that, in a sense, they should submit to their children.
Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger by the way you treat them. Rather, bring them up with the discipline and instruction that comes from the Lord. (Ephesians 6:4, NLT)
This command is addressed to fathers, but it applies to both mothers and fathers. Paul says that parents should be careful in the way they treat their children. They should seek to train their children in the right way to live, but must do so in a way that shows respect for the child and avoids wounding their spirit.
In Paul’s day, this was a radical departure from societal norms. In Roman society, the father had absolute authority over his children throughout their lives. A father could command his children to do whatever he wanted, and they were expected to comply, no matter what. Similarly, a father could do whatever he wanted with his children (including killing them) because they belonged to him alone. Children were seen as the property of their fathers.
In Paul’s day, the notion that parents should be considerate of their children’s feelings would have been radical. Today, that notion is not so radical—the pendulum has almost swung to the opposite extreme. Today’s society says that parents should be their children’s best friends. They should not anger their children and they should ultimately let their children do what they want. That isn’t what Paul is saying either. Paul’s instructions to parents fall somewhere between these two extremes.
Paul says that parents should train their children but not provoke them to anger. Every parent knows that sometimes it is necessary to do something that will make your child angry. Paul isn’t saying we should avoid making our children angry at all costs. He is saying that we should seek to train our children in a way that respects them as people. That means we must pay attention to our tone as we relate to our children. We should train our children without belittling or humiliating them. We should avoid teasing, sarcasm, and abuse. James Dobson said it well: we should mold our child’s will without breaking their spirit.
The negative command is to not provoke our children to anger, but Paul also gives a positive command. He says parents should “bring [their children] up with the discipline and instruction that comes from the Lord.” That means we have two primary responsibilities. The first is that we should bring our children up in the way of the Lord. The phrase, “bring them up” carries the idea of nourishing or feeding our children. As parents, we must take the time to nourish our children, just physically and mentally, but also spiritually. We must teach them about what it means to be a Christian and help to instill biblical truth into their lives. It is not enough to simply drop your kids off at church, Sunday School, AWANA, and Youth Group. Those things are great ways to help nourish your children, but they can’t grow on just one or two meals a week! The programs at the church should build on the foundation you are laying at home.
We have the opportunity to bring up our children in the way of the Lord by the way we live every day. Listen to what God told the Israelites to do in this regard.
Listen, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. And you must love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength. And you must commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these commands that I am giving you today. Repeat them again and again to your children. Talk about them when you are at home and when you are on the road, when you are going to bed and when you are getting up. (Deuteronomy 6:4-7, NLT)
God gave the Israelites commands, told them to be committed to those commands, and then to continually share them with their children. We should do the same today. We must seize opportunities to share Scriptural truths with our children. We don’t have to preach sermons to our kids (they aren’t effective anyway), but we can help them learn to think biblically in the course of everyday life. Here are some ideas to get you started.
- Pray with your children regularly. Pray before meals, before they go to bed, before a big test or a big decision. Help them learn to turn to the Lord first.
- Read the Bible to or with your children regularly. Make it a regular part of your bedtime routine. Do a family devotion around the dinner table. Find ways to teach your children the importance of studying the Bible regularly.
- Bring biblical principles to bear on the situations you discuss around the dinner table. When your child talks about another child being bullied, remind them that God loves us and wants us to show love to others. When they talk about cheating, remind them that God wants us to be honest. When they mess up, remind them that God offers us forgiveness for our sins, and we forgive them too. Help them see the impact of the gospel message.
- Teach financial stewardship by encouraging your children to give a portion of their allowance or paycheck to the Lord. Show them how you decide how much to give and encourage them to follow the same pattern.
- Interact with the television shows or movies you watch. Point out the non-Christian (or anti-Christian) values that are being espoused. Explain what God says about these things, and why He says them. Help your children see there is another perspective besides what is shown on TV.
- As you work together on a project around the house or even a school assignment, remind your child that God wants us to do our best all the time, because we should always work as though we are doing it for Him.
These are only a few examples. There are surely many more. The goal is to create an environment where discussions about Christianity are commonplace. Our homes should be places where our children feel safe to ask questions about our faith, and where they see that our faith impacts every aspect of our lives.
It seems obvious, but it needs to be said: If we are going to lead our children in the way of the Lord, we must be walking in that way ourselves! Our children will learn as much from our examples as they will from our words. When they see us trying to live a godly life, it will help them see that being a Christian is not just about going to church on Sunday, it is about the way we live in every area of life!
These are simple ways that we can help our children understand the ways of God and apply them to daily life. Simple truths lived out and repeated over and over will have a greater impact on teaching our children to live according to God’s commands than almost anything else we can do.
The second responsibility is to discipline and instruct. This means that we are to train our children in the right ways to live. Often discipline is unpleasant at the time, but we understand that it is a necessary part of training our children. Sometimes we must punish children for misbehaving. But we should also praise our children when they do the right things. We need to help them see the progress they’ve made in some areas while also helping them to focus on the areas that still need work.
How do we do this? I don’t have all the answers, but let me share with you what I think Paul is telling us and what other older and wiser parents have shared as well.
We must see the big picture. As we train our children, we need to keep in mind what we want them to learn. Our discipline needs to be intentional. When we tell our children to do something, we need to be prepared to explain why it is important for them to obey us. We must seek to avoid telling our children to do something simply, “Because I said so!” While at some point, children do need to simply obey their parents, we must remember that one of the ways we can train our children is to explain to them why we are telling them to do something. It can be as simple as, “Don’t jump on the couch because you might hurt yourself or someone else,” or “You need to be home by your curfew because we have plans early in the morning.” Even when we explain our reasons, children will not always understand or appreciate them at the time, and sometimes we must compel them to obey, but ultimately we must discipline our children with a purpose—to instill Godly principles of how to live into their lives.
Sometimes it is necessary to punish children in order to train them. Punishing misbehavior is an area where we can provoke our children to anger if we aren’t careful. I’ve condensed some wisdom from Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones on what we should strive for when we must punish our children.
We should be controlled. We should not punish our children in a rage, because then our concern is not to train our children, but to vent our anger. Before we seek to control our children’s behavior, we must control our own behavior. We must compose ourselves and think clearly before we impose any punishment on our children.
We should be consistent. Our expectations for our children cannot change from day to day. If a child is punished for doing something on one day and then is told that the same behavior is acceptable the next, they will quickly become frustrated! We must also be consistent by doing the same things we expect our children to do. If we are trying to teach our children to behave in the right way, they should see us living that way too. When we tell our children they must do something but then we do the opposite, it sends the message that it’s not really important. One example of this we often see is in regards to church attendance. Kids ask, “Why do I have to go to church if Dad (or Mom) doesn’t?” We must model the kind of behavior that we expect from our children.
We should be considerate. We must consider each situation and each child carefully. This means that the punishment should fit the crime, and it should also fit the child. We should take time to hear our child’s side of the story and then impose discipline in the way that we think is most appropriate. We will punish differently when a child was trying to do what is right but chose poorly than when the child is acting in open defiance. We must consider all angles of the situation before we blindly impose disciplinary measures.
As we saw in the passages on marriage, the principle of mutual submission impacts every area of our lives. Children must submit to their parents because doing so honors God, and it will often be beneficial for us. Parents must submit their own desires and comfort to their children’s need for instruction and nourishment, gently molding them into the person God wants them to be.
These commands are not easy to apply. They require us to see beyond ourselves and sacrifice our own desires for the benefit of others. Ultimately, we see the example of how to do this in God himself. He loved us so much that He sacrificed tremendously for us. In whatever role we occupy in life, whether parent or child, husband or wife, or anywhere else, we must strive to follow the example God has given us; to love others enough that we sacrifice our own desires and comforts for their greater benefit.